The Obedience of Christ and the New Creation (2 Cor. 5:21)

Jesus Christ is Isaiah’s prophesied Suffering Servant who took upon himself the iniquities, transgressions and sins of his people as their substitute, so that they might be reconciled to God in right relationship as new creation.[i] Or, in Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21).[ii] Herein is how God reconciles exiled sinners to himself, propitiates wrath and replaces divine judgment with eschatological peace. In short, herein is how there can be new creation.

In this article we will reflect on 2 Corinthians 5:21 with an eye on the new creation declared by Paul a few verses earlier in 5:17 and God’s work of reconciliation that comes in between (5:18–20).

The Passive Obedience of Christ: Made to be Sin (2 Cor. 5:21a)

In order for the Isaianic restoration promise to be fulfilled (or reconciliation as new creation to take place), Israel’s iniquities, transgressions and sins had to be removed. So the first thing that Christ’s atoning death achieves is stated by Paul in these terms: “For our sake ] he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (5:21a). The substitutionary death of Christ is “the foundation on which or the way in which … reconciliation takes place.”[iv]

What does it mean that Christ was made to be sin? It is clear that this does not refer to an ethical change in Christ so that he became sinful. For if this were the case the efficacy of his death to constitute sinners righteous would be compromised. In addition, it would contradict Paul’s statement that he knew no sin, as well as all biblical teaching on the atonement (e.g., Heb. 4:15).

It seems better to understand it then as a reference to a change in Christ’s legal status before God, making him liable for the guilt accrued not by himself, but others, namely, his elect people.[v] Vos notes, “The use of the word ‘sin’ … generalizes and universalizes the legal identification between Christ and sin.”[vi] For Christ to be made sin is to make him personally responsible for its punishment.[vii] This would imply a legal imputation of the guilt of sin to Christ. This is further demanded by the consequent clause, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21b). “If Christ was made sin that we might become righteousness,” remarks Vos, “then obviously He was made sin in the sense of unrighteousness, by imputation. And if the effect of this imputation was death, then obviously there was a legal penalty. The death was but the execution in act of the ideal imputation.”[viii]

This legal status change was not owing to his own sin for he knew no sin. Rather, like the Isaianic Suffering Servant who “surely … has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” Jesus had the sin of his people imputed to him, so that while sinless he could be legally charged with the punishment for sin. Paul has in mind then a penal, vicarious, substitutionary death wherein Christ suffered for the sin of his people legally imputed to him. Calvin comments, “[H]e assumed in a manner our place, that he might be a criminal in our room, and might be dealt with as a sinner, not for his own offences, but for those of others, inasmuch as he was pure and exempt from every fault, and might endure the punishment that was due to us—not to himself.”[ix]

More specifically, if the above Isaianic background is sustained, Paul probably has in mind the vicarious, sin-bearing of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 52:13–53:12).[x] For Christ to be made sin then is for him to be constituted a guilt offering, incurring the legal ramifications of sin as a substitute for his people (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7; 11:25; Eph. 5:2). This notion of Christ being a guilt or sin offering is outright rejected by some, though the legal status change taking place here is still upheld.[xi] Nevertheless, the propitiatory nature of it must be maintained and is here expounded by Paul as a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice (cf. Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:13). The reconciling transaction is given an explicit vicarious character.[xii]

Ridderbos rightly notes that any effort to detract from the substitutionary and vicarious nature of Christ’s death “readily does wrong to the most fundamental segments of Paul’s gospel.”[xiii] To put it tersely, Christ by being made sin by imputation took full responsibility for it, was identified with it, charged with it and paid its penalty.[xiv] “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.”

The Active Obedience of Christ: Made to be the Righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21b)

While the removal of the iniquity, transgression and sin of God’s people in reconciliation is achieved by the imputation of the believer’s sin to Christ who then legally bore it on the cross as his or her substitute, there is also the need for a positive reuniting and renewing of sinful people with God. Both of these together amount to a new creation.[xv] Thus, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21). This carries with it a soteriological and eschatological thrust.

For us to become the righteousness of God is for us to be constituted a new creation, reconciled to God into an eschatological state in Christ. Those who once were objects of God’s wrath, rightfully banished from his presence and closed off from re-entering, according to the holiness of God which cannot condone sin,[xvi] have in Christ by means of his death and resurrection been legally and objectively constituted the righteousness of God. There is therefore a positive status imputed to the believer through Christ’s resurrection, namely, the righteousness obtained by Christ in his active obedience, for we are the righteousness of God in him.

In summary, for the work of Christ in his death and resurrection to have an eschatological impact on those who are in Christ, two things must occur. First, the believers’ sin must be imputed to Christ rendering him legally liable to receive the punishment on their behalf, as their substitute, in their place, which is his passive obedience. Second, his active obedience must be imputed to believers so that they might be constituted the righteousness of God.[xvii]

Reconciliation as Objective and Legal

The legal rendering of Christ as sin and the believer in Christ as the righteousness of God carries with it an objective status as a redemptive-historical accomplishment, similar to justification. In the words of Barnett, “[It] points to forgiveness, the reversal of condemnation. Here, then, is the objective, forensic ‘justification’ of God to those who are covenantally dedicated to God ‘in Christ,’ whom God ‘made sin.’”[xviii] Likewise, Ridderbos writes,

[Reconciliation] appears in more than one place as the parallel and equivalent of justification. … Whereas ‘to justify’ is a religious-forensic concept that is highly typical of the basic eschatological structure of Paul’s preaching, ‘reconciliation’ … has a more general, less qualified meaning in theological parlance. It originates from the social-societal sphere (cf. 1 Cor. 7:11), and speaks in general of the restoration of the right relationship between two parties.[xix]

Interestingly Vos states, “The objective reconciliation took place in the death of Christ; its subjective result is justification.”[xx]

Reconciliation consists not only in the removal of man’s guilt (or “objective legal obstacles”[xxi]) before God and of his sin not being imputed to him, but “it consists above all in the effecting eschatological peace as the fruit of justification (Rom. 5:1), and thus prepares the way to receiving a share in the new creation, the new things, peace as the all-embracing condition of salvation.”[xxii] In short, reconciliation is both the foundation and summation of the whole Christian life. In reconciliation, God does not merely restore a broken relationship, but also in this restoration propels them into the eschatological new creation.


[i] The transition into right relationship is to enter the new creation. In the words of Beale, “To be propelled into the eschatological new creation is to enter into peaceful relations with the Creator. … [R]econciliation is a facet of the larger diamond of the new creation. Nevertheless, the point is that they are of a piece with one another and are organically linked” (Beale, New Testament Biblical Theology, 537).

[ii] The difficulty in relating 5:21 with the preceding is that it is asyndetic, so that “it stands as an impressively absolute statement” (Barnett, Corinthians, 312). Nevertheless, Paul has already spoken of the death and resurrection of Christ in 5:15, which with 5:21 seems to form a possible inclusio. Barnett rightly considers this passage as effectively the foundation of 5:16–21 (p. 315). Vos writes that this verse “constitutes the essence of the reconciliation” (“The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 364).

[iii] Vos argues that ὑπὲρ (“for the sake/benefit of”) here, as well as in 5:14, has the full force of ἀντὶ (“in the place of”; cf. Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45). “What Christ did as priest,” writes Vos, “He did as the substitutionary Surety of believers, and, precisely for that reason, did before God and not toward man” (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Three: Christology, 100).

[iv] Ridderbos, Paul, 186.

[v] Vos, “The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 364.

[vi] Vos, “The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 364; emphasis mine.

[vii] Vos captures it well, “To make someone to be sin … does not mean to actually change him into a sinful being or to transmit the blemishes of sin to him but simply to make him personally responsible for the penal consequences of sin. The same thing is meant by the term ‘imputation.’ It occurs with respect to both the penal guilt that the sinner himself has accrued and the guilt transferred to him from someone else” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:112).

[viii] Vos, “The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 365; see also idem., Reformed Dogmatics, 3:106–7; Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, 155: “The idea of imputation underlies the whole passage.”

[ix] Calvin, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 242.

[x] Cf. Barnett, Corinthians, 313; George H. Guthrie, 2 Corinthians, 313–15; Calvin, Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 242: “It is the guilt, on account of which we are arraigned at the bar of God. As, however the curse of the individual was of old cast upon the victim, so Christ’s condemnation was our absolution, and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah liii. 5).”

[xi] The following reject the notion of Christ being a guilt offering: Robert Letham, The Work of Christ, 134; John R. De Witt, “The Nature of the Atonement: Reconciliation,” in Atonement, ed. Gabriel N. E. Fluhrer (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010), 26. De Witt will however go on to say, “The Father legally made him liable for the punishment of sin. He consigned his own Son to darkness and separation from his presence. It was as though he, the spotless Lamb of God, were responsible for the sin of the world. … [T]he Father stripped the Son of his own holiness and perfection and made him wear the rags of our unholiness and imperfection. He stood in the place of the condemned and the guilty” (pp. 26–27). This seems to compute with an understanding of Jesus as the sin-bearing Suffering Servant of Isaiah, which is closely related, if not paralleled, with the guilt offering, though of course Christ is not a passive animal with no say in the matter, but a willing Son who lays down his own life for the sake of his people.

[xii] Vos, “The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 364.

[xiii] Ridderbos, Paul, 190.

[xiv] Macleod, Christ Crucified, 155.

[xv] Beale, NTBT, 535.

[xvi] Cf. Macleod, Christ Crucified, 151–53. Calvin writes, “For so long as God imputes to us our sins, He must of necessity regard us with abhorrence; for he cannot be friendly or propitious to sinners” (Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 237). God’s act of reconciliation, then, includes the non-imputing of our sins to us and the imputing of them to Christ who bears the legal punishment for them in his suffering and death as our substitutionary sacrifice. All of this effects a right relationship of peace where there once was judgment and condemnation (Eph. 2:14–17; Col. 1:20).

[xvii] “Treating the sinless Christ as a sinner was the means by which treating sinners as sinless was made possible” (Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 3:106).

[xviii] Barnett, Corinthians, 315.

[xix] Ridderbos, Paul, 182.

[xx] Vos, “The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 363.

[xxi] Vos, “The Pauline Conception of Reconciliation,” 364.

[xxii] Ridderbos, Paul, 185; Similarly Vos: “God reconciled the world … by a non-imputing of sin, by removing the legal demands that He had against the world, and doing this in Christ” (Reformed Dogmatics, 3:96).

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